MGM // 1990 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // June 26th, 2001
"Hey, don't psychoanalyze me! I'm upset because I did a lousy thing!" -- Alice (Mia Farrow)
Between the ambitious success Crimes and Misdemeanors and the ambitious failure Shadows and Fog comes a Woody Allen film so slight that it threatens to disappear.
Alice Tate lives a life so regimented that she barely has time to know that she is not happy. She busily shops, visits her hairdresser, preens for dinner parties. She finds herself unable to connect with her husband, Doug (William Hurt). In her off moments, she fantasizes about a man she barely knows (Joe Mantegna).
When Alice follows recommendations to treat her back pain with a visit to the acupuncturist Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), Yang immediately recognizes that the real problem is emotional stress. Pulling out an old style hypnosis wheel, he quickly draws out the real problem. Alice has lost herself in her own soulless life. Surrendering all her past desires -- her career, her sexual energy -- she has become almost like a ghost.
It will take Dr. Yang's herbal treatments to help her find herself again.
It is difficult to talk about a film named Alice without conjuring comparisons to Alice in Wonderland. Both narratives dance around the notion of sexual awakening: Woody Allen's film setting it late in life, Carroll's farce hiding it under layers of pre-Freudian dreamwork. Both follow an odyssey through foreign and surreal lands. Both take their magic for granted. Both feature a lot of offhanded drug references.
No one in Woody Allen's Alice seems conscious of the comparison, so perhaps Carroll's influence is submerged, a long forgotten encounter. What Allen attempts here is more akin to magical realism, a world in which the supernatural operates in broad daylight. The conduit is Dr. Yang, played with winking inscrutability by Charlie Chan's old Number One Son, Keye Luke. There is no question that Yang's version of "alternative medicine" works: Alice becomes invisible, flies through New York with the ghost of an ex-boyfriend (Alec Baldwin), makes men fall hopelessly in love with her. But the comic potential of Alice's new powers are never fully exploited, perhaps because Alice herself is unable to follow through on their promise, always nervously backing off each time.
Or perhaps because Allen is afraid to follow through. There is a level of creative energy missing from Alice that the material requires to step up from mild whimsy to something more memorable. Perhaps the effort of "Oedipus Wrecks," Allen's contribution to the anthology film New York Stories proved too much of a distraction, or he just could not tame the script -- but something about Alice seems half finished. The drama of Alice's intended adultery with Joe does not jibe with the comical antics of her transformations. Late in the film, when she and Joe both decide to try invisibility, their romp through New York is decidedly tame, as if Allen is more interested in finding a way to wrap up his narrative than in finding anything funny for them to do. This smacks of a first draft, where events must be forced to conform to the narrative structure rather than evolving organically. This awkwardness is especially problematic at the end, where Alice is supposed to have her epiphany (the necessary happy ending of comedy), but she does so in a manner that seems at odds with the competing tones of the film -- she simply drops away into seeming invisibility, as does the meaning of her journey.
This may be the result of Allen's inconsistency with the material. He does not go far enough, either to explore the comic potential of the magic, the angst of Alice's psychological journey, the satire of Alice's affluent and dissolute life, or even in the Catholic undertones of Alice's epiphany. The film lacks focus. The premise is interesting: a woman who has become like a psychological ghost must literally learn to vanish in order to learn how to reappear in the flesh. But the payoff never comes.
It is probably pointless to complain any further of MGM's treatment of Woody Allen's films. Alice is presented in an anamorphically enhanced print, a little faded over time and with minor scratches, but generally in pretty good shape. Sound is monaural, but the film is dialogue-driven as always, so this should matter little. And, as always, MGM provides no extra content beyond a theatrical trailer and a few production notes in the insert. No English subtitles, of course. Allen is so intensely introverted, and so focused on each new project, that we may never see him sit down to talk about his older films. And obviously getting Mia Farrow is out of the question. But it might be nice if MGM were to enlist a film critic of some stripe to maybe introduce the films (an essay on the insert or short video introduction, like Terry Jones recently did for Criterion's Jacques Tati releases). Even Allen's failures are more interesting than most mainstream Hollywood movies.
Alice has some cute moments, but Allen mines the same territory in other films more successful (try the challenging Deconstructing Harry or the more gravely introspective Another Woman) that casual viewers of his work can pick up the slack elsewhere.
The court admonishes Woody Allen to take the time to write a second draft when the material is not pulling together as it should. Otherwise, his next film may become as slight as this one, vanishing off the screen like a ghost. MGM however is once again fined for the lack of supplemental materials and admonished to provide English subtitling for all its films.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailer